The tragic case of Ukraine's Oksana Makar draws to a close

Pressure is on the Mykolaiv court to reach a verdict that will show progress.

Legal debate has commenced in the tragic March case of Oksana Makar, which saw the 18-year-old from Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, raped, torched and ultimately killed. The incident shocked the world and cast a dark cloud over a Ukraine which was at that time looking towards Euro 2012 with anticipation. Now, more than six months later, the trial of her accused murderers is set to conclude, with the final stages now in process at The Central District Court of Mykolaiv.

A Difficult Life

Oksana Makar’s life was troubled right from childhood, spending a significant part of her early years in an orphanage after both her father and stepfather were imprisoned for drug dealing, and her mother, Tetyana Surovitska, a prominent figure in the media since her daughter’s death, was also serving a sentence on a robbery conviction. Oksana completed only six years of formal schooling, and by the age of 11 had run away from the orphanage, surviving at various locations in and around her hometown through petty theft and, reportedly, prostitution.

On 8 March , Makar is said to have met two of her attackers, friends Yevhen Krasnoschek, 23, and Artem Pohocyana, 22, in the Rybka, a Mykolaiv pub. After some drinks there, the young men suggested going back to the nearby apartment of their friend, Maksym Prisyazhnyuk, 24. The naked Makar was discovered the next morning at a nearby construction site by a passing motorist. She had been wrapped in a blanket, which at the time of her discovery had been on fire for hours, causing irreparable lung damage, beaten, strangled with cable, and dumped. Makar’s body sustained 55 percent burns, and a medical examination confirmed the girl’s claims that she had been repeatedly, and forcefully, raped.

Reports as to what happened in the apartment to cause such extreme, unfathomable brutality, have ranged from a planned, co-ordinated execution, to a rape, which saw Makar threaten to call the police and the gang attempting to subdue her through force, which escalated to the extent they believed she was dead when they left the apartment with her.

The Trial

The trial of the three accused, going on since 24 May, partly public and partly in closed sessions, has been eventful, insightful, and frequently disturbing, as new details have emerged of the International Women’s Day attack. The three accused have changed their stories several times, at one time in proceedings even going so far as to petition an insanity plea, rejected by the panel of judges, led by Judge Elena Selivanov.

The three defendants, Yevhen Krasnoschek, Artem Pohocyana, and Maksym Prisyazhnyuk, were all apprehended on March 11, after a still conscious Makar gave police information on her attackers. In a police operation which was to be the subject of fierce criticism, Pohocyana and Prisyazhnyuk were quickly released, and then swiftly re-arrested after a storm of protest broke out, and President Yanukovych intervened, while Krasnoschek has remained remanded in custody since March 11.

Each has reported stated that they were in a state of extreme alcoholic intoxication on the night of the incident, which led to the immediate amputation of Makar’s right arm and both her feet, to prevent gangrene. On March 29, Makar died in a Donetsk burn centre, even the expert intervention of a Swiss surgeon, paid for by Ukrainian billionaire and member of Verkhovna Rada, Rinat Akhmetov, insufficient to save her. Along with Akhmetov’s funding, the Mykolaiv community also raised over 1 million hryvnia for the treatment of Makar, with hundreds additionally donating blood.

Throughout the trial, defence lawyers have submitted a number of petitions aimed at mitigating or offsetting responsibility. The majority of these, including a call for a complete re-examination of proceedings (already examined by no less than 30 different experts) have been rejected.

In a labyrinth to-and-fro, which saw the defence counsel described by the prosecutor as ‘tricky’, defence lawyers even went so far as to ask for a re-examination of the deceased girl’s body, to confirm she had been raped. This request to exhume Makar, who was buried in a wedding dress in accordance with local tradition, was rejected on the grounds of irrefutable evidence already in existence, attesting to forceful sexual assault.

Relations between the accused have also fractured, as the three have broken ranks, offering attempts at expiation and blame shifting. At the end of August Yevhen Krasnoschek (who is married with a young daughter), through his lawyer Larisa Zavadskaya, refuted his earlier, recorded, testimonials and gave the explanation that he had intentionally choked Makar not quite to death so the other two would think she was dead, thus leaving her (for dead) and giving the brutalised 18-year-old girl a chance to find help. His contention was that he was then offered money to implicate himself in her murder, and lessen the charges levelled against Pohocyana and Prisyazhnyuk.

Coming at the advanced stage of the trial it did, commentators were quick to note that his statements, contradictory and confusing as they were, seemed to be playing to the idea that Prisyazhnyuk, son of the former head of the Yelanets District Administration in Mykolayiv Oblast, was the ringleader in the crime. Many had thought that Prisyazhnyuk, who worked as a lawyer and with his background of wealth and power, was best placed of the three accused, yet with all aware of the global interest in the case, the Ukrainian judicial system can ill afford any exoneration based on privilege. As the trial has progressed, Prisyazhnyuk, described by sources as having a forceful character, has increasingly found his wealth and connections used to paint a picture of an individual who thought he could do as he wished. Pohocyana was originally said to have senior connections, with his father having worked as a high-ranking official in the district prosecutor’s office in Mykolaiv. However, police subsequently claimed his father was a manual labourer, who died in January 2012, and his mother a librarian. While Krasnoschek and Prisyazhnyuk are reported to have remained largely dispassionate during legal testimonials and evidence giving, Pohocyana has visibly buckled under the gravity of the situation, and earlier in October attempted to take his own life in his cell. All three are accused of committing crimes under paragraphs 4, 10, 12, Part 2 of Article 115, and paragraph 4 of Article 152 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine. Krasnoschek further finds himself charged with Part 3 of Article 153 (satisfying sexual desire in perverted forms).

Krasnoschek originally reported that Makar was wrapped in a blanket, and dropped in the pit, with the blanket catching fire when a pillow case was lit and tossed down. Afterwards, he reported, they went home and changed into new clothes, before buying vodka and eating at a local kiosk. "We sat down, had a smoke and then went our own ways." Whether the three will ever be able to go their own ways again will be determined soon, with a life sentence the maximum penalty for each of the men. However, it’s not just the Ukrainian legal system about to be placed again at the fore of the international media. Ukraine’s alarming record of domestic violence, and patchy record in past prosecutions, are about to be thrust into the global eye.

An endemic problem

Pressure is on the Mykolaiv court to reach a verdict which will show progress from 2011’s Roman Landik case, a so-called "bigwig crime". In July of 2011, Landik, the 37-year-old son of a national parliamentary figure, and himself a prominent personage, was caught on CCTV repeatedly punching a girl, Maria Korshunov, grabbing her by the throat and dragging her across the floor of a restaurant by her hair. The argument began when the (recently married) Landik tried to flirt with Korshunov, who refused his advances and the drink he attempted to force on her. Landik’s response was to rain down blows in a sustained assault lasting several minutes. 

One of the most disturbing factors of the incident was the passivity of the other diners, in what was a busy establishment - while Maria’s friend called police, restaurant patrons looked on with a mixture of indifference and some irritation at having their dinner disturbed. The waitress, meanwhile, deposited the bill on Korshunov’s table in the midst of the beating, and walked off. The battered Korshunov spent several days in the neurological department of the local Luhansk hospital, suffering from concussion, bruises and a nervous breakdown.

Landik had probably thought that was the end of that, and it may ordinarily have been. However, the upload of the video onto YouTube provoked a wave of protest and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He initially fled to Russia, and before being sent back gave a series of statements indicating that he was the real victim, and that Korshunov and he would be friends in future. Landik returned to Ukraine to pay Korshunov an undisclosed sum, which was taken into account when the court handed down a three-year suspended sentence. Independent lawyer Natalya Petrova went so far as to claim this represented standard legal practice, “Speaking as a lawyer, it is clear there is a beating, there is a crime. But she (the victim) agreed to a sum of compensation... If she had not taken money, the decision would have been different.”

In developed legal systems, any such compensation would have been paid after a successful conviction, not as appears in this case, instead. Critics of the Ukrainian legal system viewed this as simply another example of a ‘bigwig crime’, whereby the rich can largely do as they please.   

As Makar lay in the burns centre in Donetsk, dying from her wounds, she was filmed by her mother, and the video posted on YouTube. Makar is clearly suffering, as her mother coaxes the girl to wave the stump that was her right arm to the camera, and persists in getting her to repeat, “I’ll live while I’m alive.” At around the same time, a video was posted of an 18th birthday party in Ukraine, in which a fight breaks out. In the fracas, the young men start indiscriminately and brutally beating up the young ladies. They do so in both a callous and casual manner, causing many commenting on the video to observe what seasoned hands they seemed at it. And on exactly the same day as the Makar attack, another teenage girl from the area, Aleksandra Popova, was also hospitalized after being beaten by a male perpetrator. Popova remained unconscious for weeks, before recovering. Male on female violence in Ukraine is far from an isolated incident, as statistics substantiate, with one in four murders in Ukraine a result of domestic violence, meaning over 1000 women in a given year die at the hands of their boyfriend or spouse. Statistics further record that a third of Ukrainian women have been faced with domestic violence in their adult lives.

I interviewed Liza Rai, of La Strada, a group in operation since 1997 working against human trafficking, domestic violence, gender inequality and children’s rights violations. 

What are your thoughts on the Makar case?

It’s been a terrible and shocking incident, firstly for the girl and her family, but also for Ukrainian society. Some of the attitudes exposed by the case have been frightening, in terms of some thinking that in some way she was responsible for what happened to her, because of her lifestyle or behaviour.

And of that contention?

Any woman can, and should be able to dress as she likes without fear of reprisals. Any woman should be able to behave freely without threat of brutality. In this case, Oksana Makar was, and had been since her early life, a victim. She was in need of society’s care and support to help her achieve some kind of normal adult life.

What punishment should be given to the accused?

The maximum sentence for the crime they are accused of is life imprisonment. If they are indeed convicted, then, given the extreme brutality of the crime, life imprisonment should certainly be passed down.

What are the causes behind the problem of violence against women?

The causes are deep-rooted and manifold. Firstly, if a child is either the victim of domestic violence or witness to it, there is a strong chance they will one day perpetrate themselves. There is also the issue that in Ukrainian society, we sometimes simply don’t care enough about each other. We have a proverb here, “my house is at the end of the city, and I don’t want to know anything about my neighbours”, which gives you an idea of the mentality. When people see a woman being beaten, their first reaction is often not to intervene, but ignore.

On top of this, you have the hard economic realities of Ukraine. That of low salaries, and of salaries not being paid on time. Tensions over money can swiftly escalate into violence – especially when alcohol is involved. Now, in addition to this, women are becoming stronger and more independent in society, something some men see as a threat for which violence should be used to suppress.

And the laws dealing with the issue?

There is a law, the 2001 law "On the Prevention of Violence in the Family" (The Advocates for Human Rights 17 July 2009; OSI 2007, 21), which was amended in 2008. Before the 2008 amendment, police had been allowed to shift blame from perpetrator to victim. The 2008 act also gave additional powers in terms of detention of accused, and the rights of non-married victims. It furthermore eliminated what had been a common mitigating plea, that of “provocative behaviour” of the defendant, and increased punishments. So, we have the law in place – its application, though, is another story. Many times, even now, the woman is simply told to ‘sort it out within her own family’. Judges similarly don’t really want to get involved, and tend to rush these cases through with a fine. The tragic irony is that the man who beats his wife pays the fine, but of course that money comes out of the family budget. So, the woman who has been beaten now has less money to feed her family. Now, Ukraine has signed, and is soon to ratify, EU Convention #210 on the elimination of all forms of violence against women.  

What can be done to solve the problem?

Firstly, it comes down to education. It must be instilled in children from an early age that violence against women is morally abhorrent. Secondly, there needs to be acknowledgement in Ukrainian society of both the scale of the situation and how unacceptable it is, in any sphere or setting, against any victim. Men need to know that they will be punished for what they do, and before they do anything, they need to stop for a moment, and think that the person they are about to hurt is a human being, weaker than them. Alcohol doesn’t excuse anything.

La Strada has, since 2004, operated a National Toll-Free Hotline for victims of domestic violence, male or female.

La Strada hotline number:

0800-500-335 or 386
(for toll-free calls from mobile phones)

International callers:
38-044-205-3695

www.la-strada.org.ua 

This article originally appeared in Pravda. Much of the article was originally written by this author for What's On magazine of Kyiv.

Oksana Makar in hospital in March. Photograph: Getty Images

Graham Phillips is an English journalist, based in Kiev, Ukraine. Find him on Twitter as @GWP_MG. His book Kiev or Kyiv -  Notes from a Year in Ukraine, is out soon.

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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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